Jupiter Hammon was born into slavery with the Lloyd family at Lloyd Neck on Long Island, New York , staying with them all his life. He was given a rudimentary education at a school on the premises through the Anglican Church’s Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. He was a deeply religious man and at the age of 22 purchased a bible from his master for the sum of seven shillings and sixpence (thirty-seven and a half p in today’s money). This would have been a considerable sum for him but also indicates that he must have received some wages for his work. With the aid of this, he became a preacher to his fellow slaves.
He published his first poem in 1761 An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ, with Penitential Cries, the first ever poem by an African American. In 1778 he wrote a poetical dialogue, The Kind Master and Dutiful Servant, and around that time An Address to Miss Phillis Wheatley, the first female African American poet whom he never met but whose poetry he greatly admired. This was written during the American War of Independence but not published until 1787. During the war, the Lloyd family relocated to Hartford, Connecticut as the British were closing in.
Altogether Jupiter Hammon published eight works, four of poetry and four of prose, all with a religious content. The last one of these, An Address to Negros in the State of New York , was the most influential and was replicated by several abolitionist groups. An Essay on Slavery, dicovered as recently as 2013 in Yale University Library by a graduate student, gives his views on the issue, which many believe, whilst superficially supporting the system, contain coded messages against it. As a fervent Christian and profoundly loyal to his owners, he would have found it difficult to be openly critical of slavery even if deep down he disapproved of the institution. He has been unfairly dismissed as an “Uncle Tom” in some quarters but this does less than justice to his integrity and his importance as a pioneer of African American literature.